Travel ban surprises many, pleases some
Governor Deval Patrick’s strict travel ban Friday stunned pizza deliverers and police chiefs alike, shuttering shops, befuddling taxi drivers, and leaving police officers wondering if they had to ticket drivers dashing to the store for a gallon of milk.
Some criticized the governor for his last-minute edict and the stiff penalties it carried — up to a year in jail and a $500 fine to any nonemergency personnel on the road after 4 p.m. — while others doubted that storm-swamped police would have time to enforce the ban.
But those who recalled the nightmare highway strandings in the Blizzard of ’78 praised Patrick’s order — including the former governor who wished he’d taken similar action sooner 35 years ago.
“There’s no question that the governor’s doing exactly the right thing — have people home, get them off the streets, and just cool it,” said former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, speaking from Southern California, where he now teaches at UCLA.
Dukakis said he banned traffic for a week after the Blizzard of ’78 throttled New England on Feb. 6 and 7 of that year, claiming 54 lives, reducing houses to rubble, and smothering the region in up to 4 feet of snow. Hundreds of commuters and jackknifed tractor-trailers were stranded on Route 128 as snowdrifts piled high around them, forcing authorities to rescue them and ferry them to shelters.
“If forecasting had been more accurate, I would have started the process” sooner, Dukakis said.
But others were skeptical Friday that police mired in disaster response could handle the unexpected task of pulling over motorists during the storm.
Evan Kenney, a Fitchburg State freshman from Wakefield, said it was “tyrannical” of the governor to impose an order that would distract busy police officers. Kenney said he planned to stay inside and didn’t need a tough order to do so.
“Like a year in prison?” said Kenney, a 19-year-old self-described Libertarian-Republican majoring in film and video production. “Police departments don’t need to deal with this nonsense. Why is the governor wasting their time when they need to be worried about real issues like the safety of residents in their town?”
Many police officers learned of the order Friday morning and were unsure how to enforce it, since they hadn’t done something like that in recent memory. Most were already worried about fighting crime and responding to storm-related emergencies.
“In this case I can almost guarantee that we won’t use it at all,” said Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, who said he sent police officers a memo urging them to use the executive order as a way to warn drivers to get off the roads. “I don’t want to spring this on officers at the last minute.”
Framingham Police Chief Steven Carl said it would be dangerous for police to pull over drivers in blizzard conditions to check whether they were authorized to travel. Instead, he said, he instructed his officers to focus on emergencies, such as the sick, the elderly, and downed power lines.
“We have our hands full,” Carl said. “We can’t get involved in stopping people for driving down the road.”
State Police spokesman David Procopio said the State Police would enforce the travel ban, but he did not say how. “As always, we will use our discretion in determining when enforcement action is appropriate,” he said in an e-mail.
Patrick signed the executive order Friday morning banning motor vehicle traffic starting at 4 p.m. “and continuing until further notice,” except for public safety and public works vehicles, including government contractors, utility companies, hospital and health care workers, news media, and essential business travel, such as trucks that deliver fuel, food, and hardware supplies.
Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said nobody could recall a similar order since 1978, but he said the governor’s goal is to get people off the road.
“This is just trying to bang home the idea that this is a critical situation,” Judge said. “We do not want people on the road if they do not have to be on the road.”
The ban was effective Friday among some workers who might normally be on the road.
Domino’s Pizza in Charlestown had planned a busy night delivering hot pies to snowbound families. But when the governor’s edict hit the news, they closed the doors with the phones still ringing.
“We’re actually shutting down right now,” said Mike, the shop manager who declined to give his last name, as he prepared to close the doors just after 2 p.m. after making one last pepperoni pizza. “When it snows like this, it’s our busy time. We just have to start turning people down. I have four lines ringing right now.”
Independent Taxi in Boston pulled most of its cabs off the road around 4 p.m. except for emergency calls, such as taking nurses to work at the hospital, said dispatcher John Barry.
Barry said they were “hearing different things” from authorities about whether the cabs could ferry people around. But in the absence of a clear mandate, they waited.
“People are calling and we’re just telling them we have no cabs,” he said.
The governor’s decision garnered high praise in Brockton, where 77-year-old Jack Fargo vividly recalled sitting in his Honda Civic that Monday afternoon in 1978 — it was his birthday — stuck on Route 128 with his college-student daughter as the snowdrifts rose around them. To stay warm, he ran the engine every few minutes.
He braved freezing winds to clear snow from the car’s exhaust pipe so it wouldn’t clog and poison them with carbon monoxide, something that happened to others that day.
Early the next morning, the National Guard and State Police rescued them and hundreds of others and brought them to a shelter. Fargo did not make it home for four days.
Safe at home 35 years later, Fargo said the governor’s order Friday probably protected many workers from feeling pressured to go to work instead.
“I think it’s brilliant,” Fargo, a retired mechanical engineer, said of Patrick’s executive order. “I know there’s a certain amount of commerce that goes on, companies worry about their costs and their payrolls and everything else. But I think humanity is the greater bottom line. He did the right thing and I applaud him for that.”